Snapshot: Oregon Students Get Peers Back on the Bus - for Free

December 5, 2013

In Oregon, the young members of the Multnomah Youth Commission (MYC) have led several successful policy change efforts, ranging from creating and passing a Bill of Rights for Children and Youth (get the story), making local school-based health centers more youth-friendly, and sparking a county-wide anti-violence movement.

One concrete impact of their work is establishing YouthPass, a system of free bus passes for students in public schools. It began four years ago, as students surveyed their peers and found that access to transit as one of the most common areas of concern among local youth.

Portland has no yellow school bus service for middle and high schools; students are expected to take public transportation. “Transit costs students and parents literally millions of dollars per year,” says Marc Fernandes, youth development coordinator for the county. “We have some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, in part because of access to schools.”

After studying the options, MYC members decided that students should be able to use their ID cards to get free bus rides to and from school and to after-school activities and jobs.  They were inspired by Sisters in Action for Power, a local organization supporting young women of color, successfully pushed for subsidized bus passes for students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch programs. After a year, this subsidized program ended.

The MYC worked to bring it back to life in an expanded form to make it available to all students, regardless of family income or geography. The resulting YouthPASS debuted in time for the 2010-2011 school year. It gives Portland public high school students 24/7 access to free bus rides during the school year, saving families approximately $3 million each year, according to city estimates.

It was originally paid for by the federal Business Energy Tax Credit and is now funded by a collaboration among Portland Public Schools, TriMet (the local transit agency) and the Mayor’s office.

The MYC is currently working to expand the program to every public middle and high school in the county. The challenges are both financial and logistical: in some areas there is no existing public transit, so new bus routes need to be created. Students are working closely with TriMet and OPAL, the largest environmental justice organization in the region, to expand bus routes and the YouthPASS.

“Right now, more than half of the youth who sit on the Commission don’t have access to YouthPASS, so there’s a real equity issue,” says Fernandes.

And one that the MYC is working hard to correct.

About the Multnomah Youth Commission

The Multnomah Youth Commission (MYC) is the official youth policy body for Multnomah County and the City of Portland, Oregon, comprising young people ages 13 to 21. It started in 1996 as a small Multnomah County Youth Advisory Board to advise the county’s Commission on Children, Youth, Families & Community on issues that policymakers identified as priorities.  In 2002, youth members developed bylaws that shifted the group from an advisory board to a commission; the County Board approved the shift and the Multnomah Youth Commission was officially launched. Now, instead of reacting to policymakers’ goals, the members identify their own priorities and build campaigns to inform local policy.

Staffing: The MYC can have a maximum of 42 youth across the city and county. For the 2013-2014 session, the Commission includes 27 youth commissioners, supported by a full-time adult youth development coordinator, Marc Fernandes, a full-time AmeriCorps Vista worker, two part-time college students, and a part-time high school-age staff member. Official by-laws define the structure and function of the MYC.

Funding: The Youth Commission operates as a partnership between the county and the city of Portland under an intergovernmental agreement. It receives some county funds and has also raised over $300,000 in grants funders like the Penney Family Fund and StateFarm.

More on the MYC and its wins: 

This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at